Thursday, May 10, 2018

Troubled Troublemaker at the Chicago CTA station

Bizarre CTA Experience: This morning I stepped onto the platform at Chicago red line stop, and began reading Nabokov's Blues, a book about the writer and Lepidopterist (butterfly scholar/ collector) Vladimir Nabokov. I was on page three of a book I received this morning, when I guess my peripheral vision mapped an old man approach from my left side. Many travelers pass you by, and you barely pay attention. I was really enjoying my reading material, and before I sensed how close he was, he knocked the book out of my hands. The book, with two blue butterflies on its cover, fell onto the steel-gray tracks. With the book gone, my hands still raised up as if in prayer, I saw before me an old, haggard, African-American man. He had a cigarette butt in his lips, and a very angry expression on a wrinkled, dissipated face, eyes bulging out of sockets as if if with intense hatred. I stepped away from him, as did others around us. Then the man went on to partially drop his pants, expose his posterior, while a hand got busy for few seconds in his pants in the front. A minute or so later, with posterior still exposed, he walked past me, and approached an African-American woman who was sitting on a bench. He picked a tissue paper and a fork lying next to her, and angrily threw it at the tracks. A person next to me kept saying: is there an emergency button around here? Quite soon, but not soon enough, the train arrived. I boarded the train, later called and talked to a CTA representative reporting the incident to make sure the troubled man, the troublemaker was removed from the train station. Also I expressed interest in getting my book back. The man appeared quite disturbed and unstable, and clearly needs some form of care and cure. I wish I knew how to help him, and though I was appalled by the whole thing as it unfolded, I am still wondering why did he do what he did? #CTA #Chicago

Saturday, March 17, 2018

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis is a prescient, prophetic, visionary novel, that embarks on a cautionary tale of a fascist, misogynist, racist leadership that manages to get democratically elected in the United States. The novel was written in 1930s when fascism was on a rise in the Western Europe while communism was growing stronger by the day in the Eastern Europe, and back when, most of the European nations, the US and Japan harbored strong colonial aspirations. Central to the story is the character of Buzz Windrip, the man who becomes the nominee of a major party, then the president, and then a dictator, "in order to save the nation from the welfare cheats, from crimes and sex, from drinkers and bootleggers, from the rising power of women who had just got the right to vote and work in offices and factories, from the ascendant African-Americans, businessmen Jews and the immigrants, from a liberal press, and imports". Buzz Windrip is brought into power with the help of evangelists and with the help of miners, laborers, and the so-called hardworking middle class American who believe in his promise that everyone would make more money under his leadership. In the first quarter of the novel, as the drumbeats around the nomination and subsequently the election of Buzz Windrip get louder and louder, the confounded intellectuals around the country go on mumbling "It can't happen here!"

The novel is a razor sharp political satire from another era, and it imagines the rise of both a dictatorial president and his henchmen from a fully-functioning democractic set-up. The scenarios imagined with a cold accuracy of a truly imaginative and creative writer appear to the a script many leaders around the world have emulated over the past few decades. Sinclair Lewis was the first American novelist to win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, for his major, more famous novels like Main Street, Babbitt and Arrowsmith. Although America narrowly escaped the wave of nazism and fascism in 1930s, the script of the novel stays as fresh and as foreboding as ever. Buzz Windrip, who eventually wins the vote, within this novel is said to have ghost-authored a book, written in a folksy, funny, simplified language, with choicest examples and phrases meant to echo in the minds and hearts of common people. Many chapters open with a paragraph drawn from the imaginary book, (titled Zero Hour) and each paragraph seems to have inspired words and phrases we have heard in our times from the leaders who are said to be in touch with the public, the masses, the working classes.  

The novel has a very memorable cast of characters, and works well both as a political satire as well as a saga of families and friends trying to make sense of events and changes around them. The primary actor and thinker in the story is Doremus Jessup, who is an editor of a small New England newspaper. Doremus both bears a witness to the emergence of Buzz as the president and a dictator, and becomes a victim to the influence of Buzz, exercised through handpicked cast of men in administration, each one more cunning and capricious than his predecessor at the job and also the incredible "Minute Men". Minute Men refers to a parallel  armed force of followers created by Buzz, with help of Sarason, his confidant and the supposed brain behind many of the popular songs, sayings and policies of Buzz. Minute men run the labor camps (similar to concentration camps), seize what they will, and they control justice system, and the minute men, with their marches and uniforms inspire awe and obedience in the masses.  Without giving away the thrilling and chilling plot points, including the inspiring and equally well-written female cast, I would add that the friends and family of Doremus, and his foes, provide a perfect orchestra of voices and choices through which the grand drama of the demise of a democracy is played out. I think it is the honored duty of every individual and every intellectual to read books like this one. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Books Read in 2018

Read in 2018 (39 = 25 + 14; NF 10) 
FICTION IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION --  (8): The Double by Jose Saramago, Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte, I am a Cat by Natsume Soseki: Volume 1, Volume 2 & Volume 3, Runaway Horses (and The Temple of Dawn) by Yukio Mishima, (Beware of Pit by Stefan Zweig), 

NOVEL / FICTION IN ENGLISH (6):  The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, (Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham), The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe, It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

POETRY IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION (6):  War Primer by Bertolt Bretcht [translated from the German by John Willett], The Complete Poems by Catullus [translated from the Latin by Guy Lee], Songs of the Simple Truth: the Complete Poems by Julia de Burgos [translated from the Spanish by Jack Agueros], Birds for a Demolition by Manoel de Barros [translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey], Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poems by Vasko Popa [translated from Serbian by Charles Simic], (By the Danube: Selected Poems by Atilla Jozsef [translated from the Hungarian by John Batki],

POETRY IN ENGLISH (7): The Shadow of Sirius by W. S. Merwin, The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins, Erratic Facts by Kay Ryan, Felicity by Mary Oliver, Exit, Civilian by Idra Novey, My Soviet Union by Michael Dumanis, The Day's Last Light Reddens the Leaves of the Copper Beech by Stephen Dobyns

The Complete Poems by Catullus [translated by Guy Lee] in Latin,

PHILOSOPHY / RELIGION / MYTHOLOGY / HISTORY (4):  (Vasistha's Yoga translated by Swami Venkatesananda), (India by Al-beruni), (Three Ways to be Alien by Sanjay Subrahmanyam), (The Lessons of History  by Will and Ariel Durant)

POPULAR SCIENCE / ECONOMICS (3): (Cohesion by Rowlinson), (The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen),  (Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius by Kurt Johnson & Steve Coates),
NON-FICTION - OTHER (3):  (Traction by Gino Wickman), The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, (Principles by Ray Dalio)

MAHABHARATA (by Mahrishi Ved Vyas; translated from Samskrit into English by Kisari Mohun Ganguly) (0/18):

Hindi / Urdu / Punjabi (Fiction/Mythology: 0 + Poetry: 0 + Non-fiction: 0): Pratinidhi Kahaniyan by Bhisham Sahni,

Sanskrit (Fiction: 0+ Poetry: 0): 

(If I am through more  than 50% of the book, it goes into the list of the year past, otherwise it appears in the new list next year. See here for the books read in 2017, with a selection of my favorite reads from the year past.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Splinter Factory by Jeffrey McDaniel

Jeffrey McDaniel is a heartbreak, wisecrack poet, and his poems contain a potpourri of metaphors that astound, amuse, hurt, and linger in your imagination. Though there is often a subtext of dysfunctional family, unrequited or unsavory love, crack or alcohol addiction, in nearly every line Jeffrey invents a language for human condition that is scintillating in its originality and imagery. Do not attempt to read these if you are a prude, do not attempt to recite these if your lips have never been silted by tears or blood. In poem after poem, Jeffrey stuns you with his metaphors, and his wordplay brings to page a gorgeous imagination that thrives in the surreal landscapes of "The Utopia of Scars" co-inhabited by desolation and hope. I find his poems intoxicating, and as I sip his punchy phrases, I feel I am at a cocktail tasting, as a special guest of a bartender renowned for discovering savory concoctions, made with unexpected ingredients.

In "Renovating the Wall", he writes: "I enjoyed my time in the uterus, reading / what the previous fetuses had written / on your walls. That's how I learned / to spell. That's how I came out speaking."

In a poem titled "Dear America", Jeffrey talks about addiction: ... In college I took so many drugs / the professors looked at the samples of my urine / just to know what books I'd been reading./"

Jeffrey has a remarkable ear and eye for curious word combinations that are charming, endearing and apt.  "The Scars of Utopia", he says: "... There should be Band Aids // for what you don't know: whiskey breath minds so sober people // can fit in at wild parties; a Smithsonian for misfits: / an insomniac's mucky pillow hanging over a naroleptic's // drool cup, ..."

The collection is as spectacular as his poet titled "The Jeffrey McDaniel Show". "The Archer of Gluttony" or "Old Flame Thrower" enthralls us with sounds and images so crisp and finely crafted that you delight even at phrases that are highlighting desperation or melancholy. The poems showcase the skill of one of the finest metaphor makers of our times, and yet the poems are very readable, very likeable.

The seemingly autobiographical or persona poems are full of razor-sharp observations and unforgettable sentences: "...your tongue,/ ripping through my prairie like a tornado of paper cuts". Or in a poem about Grandma, he says: "I press my ears to her lampshade-thin chest / and listen to that little soldier march towards whatever / plateau, or simply exhaust his arsenal of beats." I highly recommend this collection by Jeffrey McDaniel and also recommend all his other books. Like me, you will discover that within the poems abides a sensitive, compassionate, witty, sympathetic and remarkable, self-effacing voice that must be celebrated word by word, line by line.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Middle-class Traditions Featuring Lemon Tree Leaves

- for Stephen Dobyns and Dean Parkins

Adolescent cousins sneak out, smoke
cigars, hukkahs, cigarettes, beedis,
opium sometimes, chillum fumes.
Cousins chew lemon leaves before
returning home. Explain why my uncles,
aunts, (their parents), cousins, neighbors,
never smell a lemon? Why not count
how many leaves vanish each night?

Cousins inherit the trick,
but fathers ignore the nostalgic lemon.
Mothers go on washing kurtas / shirts,
give head massages, hugs and career
advice. Mothers descry each drab stain
but fail as spies in a smoker's domain.
Is it maternal instinct to nurture
ignorance of chewed leaves?

Middle-aged uncles sneak out to savor
scotch, dancing women, rum quaffs,
sacrilegious ham or beef kebabs.
Though their lemons control
their households, the habit
plucks a leaf or two.
Rich don't care, poor brawl,
middle-class avoids confrontation
by swallowing bitter leaves of lemon.

To ward off evil-eye, grandmas
string lemon-chilli necklaces
for cars and all entrances.
Aunts treasure lemon trees,
they occasionally worship.
Lemons – spice up their dishes,
scare away unwelcome spirits,
and add flavor to their kisses.

My dead grandpa's friends
resent guilt and thrills of their young.
I imagine them unzip trousers,
loosen pajama strings with flourish
and tremble with a sly joy as they spray
golden, odorous drops, offered as ablutions
to the life's deceits and to all lemon leaves
that their spiraling, musty jets can reach.


First published in Muse India, 2016

Monday, January 02, 2017

Advice from Saraswati and the Muses

Write what is wrung from your tongue
a blistering song, a howl from your lung,
strum every veena vein muscle string
of your throat and your thumb.

Write with a bite that goes below, to the bone,
to marrow and to moan, to the seed of a seed.
Write to merit a sigh, a smile or a sob
from a granite idol or a brass snob.

Embrace the past, encompass eternal, vast
feelings. Empower -- under the thumb, mum,
conquered -- with hymns. Leave no crumb
unversed. Croon with aplomb.

Invoke immortal ideas, idols, ideals, idioms.
The wise mine for poems in realms forgotten
or uncharted. Seek, master the unknown,
the before and the after of Allah, Yesu, Om.

To celebrate and sing of the light like a skylark,
begin in the dark. Curate a spark within, burn,
transcend the limits of the Brahma and a quark.
Publish. Deserve immortal art.


First published in Muse India, 2016.
Saraswati: The Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, Speech and Music.
(My new year resolution for 2017: publish, publish, publish -- mostly science, also poetry)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Books Read in 2017

Read in 2017 (60 = 40 + 20; NF 13) 
FICTION IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION --  (12): Silence by Shushako Endo [Translated from the Japanese by William Johnston], Rudin by Ivan Turgenev [Translated from the Russian by Richard Freeborn], The Monkey's Wrench by Primo Levi [Translated from the Italian by William Weaver], The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann [Translated from the German], By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano [Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews], Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh [Translated from the Kannanda], The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano [Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer], Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima [Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallager], The Swimmer by Zsuzsa Banks [Translated by Margaret B. Dembo], The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati [Translated from Italian], A Night in the Cemetery and other Stories of Crime and Suspense by Anton Chekov [Translated from Russian by Peter Sekerin], Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz [Translated from Arabic by]

NOVEL / FICTION IN ENGLISH (14): The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, A Painter of Our Time  by John Berger, Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, The Confidence Man by Herman Melville, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, (Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand), Angels  by Denis Johnson, Love, Again by Doris Lessing, The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities on the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

POETRY IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION (5): The Poetry of Zen  [Translated from the Japanese and the Chinese by Sam Hill and J. P. Seaton], Issa's Best: a Translator's Selection of Master Haiku by Kobayashi Issa [Translated from the Japanese by David G. Lanoue], The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa and Other Poets [Translated from the Japanese and the Chinese by Sam Hill] , The World's End by Pablo Neruda [Translated from the Spanish], Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta by Pablo Neruda [Translated from the Spanish by Ben Belitt]

POETRY IN ENGLISH (15): Sweet Ruin by Tony Hoagland, Station Island by Seamus Heaney, The Long Meadow by Vijay Seshadri,  A Street of Clocks by Thomas Lux, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth Poems 2004:2006  by Adrienne Rich, The Splinter Factory by Jeffrey McDaniel, Winter's Journey by Stephen Dobyns, Evenings and Avenues by Stuart Dischell, The Forgiveness Parade by Jeffrey McDanielAs I Walked Out One Evening by W. H. Auden,  Backward Days by Stuart Dischell, Letters from Aldenderry by Philip Nikolayev, The Romantic Dogs by Roberto Bolano, To Urania by Joseph Brodsky, Selected Poems: 1988-2003 by Seamus Heaney,


POPULAR SCIENCE / ECONOMICS (3): Proof: The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers, Flow and Branches by Philip Ball,
NON-FICTION - OTHER (10): Ways of Seeing by John Berger, The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young, A Writer's Nightmare by R. K. Narayan, The Uncertain Certainty by Charles Simic, Understanding a Photograph by John Berger, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Iain Gately, (Twenty Poems that Could Save America and Other Essays by Tony Hoagland), The Miles Between Me by Toni Nealie, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Micheal Pollan,

MAHABHARATA (by Mahrishi Ved Vyas; translated from Samskrit into English by Kisari Mohun Ganguly) (0/18):

Hindi / Urdu / Punjabi (Fiction/Mythology: 1 + Poetry: 0 + Non-fiction: 0)Bhasmavrit Chingari by Yashpal,

Sanskrit (Fiction: 0+ Poetry: 0): 

(If I am through more  than 50% of the book, it goes into the list of the year past, otherwise it appears in the new list next year. See here for the books read in 2016, with a selection of my favorite reads from the year past.)

Best among the books read in 2017
(1)  The Savage Detectives
(2) Gachar Gochar 
(3) To Urania
(4) Drink
(5) Cairo Modern
(6) The Splinter Factory
(7) The Magic Mountain
(8) The Swimmer
(9) The Miles Between Me
(10) A Street of Clocks